illustrated men: local comic book stores embrace city's superhero heritage

Cleveland has a proud and colorful comic book legacy. Superman was not born on Krypton, but in the home of a Glenville teenager. Then there is Harvey Pekar, the "flunky file clerk," jazz enthusiast and book critic who turned everyday life in Cleveland into a blue-collar touchstone through his American Splendor comics.

But wait, there's more! Pekar was close friends with cartoonist R. Crumb, who drew novelty greetings cards for American Greetings before countercultural characters like Fritz the Cat made him famous. Anyone who grew up in the early '90s will remember Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip crafted by famously attention-shy Northeast Ohioan Bill Watterson. On the BANG! ZAP! POW! front, University Heights produced Brian Michael Bendis, a comic book writer who has penned story arcs for Spider-Man and the X-Men.

A more recent comic book craze found the city at the center of the massive Marvel Universe. Two major movies in the comic giant's pantheon were filmed here over the last three years, with every motorcycle stunt, exploding SUV and celebrity sighting carefully chronicled by the local press.

Cleveland's heroic heritage is something local comic book shop owners take seriously, particularly in an era of pop culture where geek is chic and comic book enthusiasts no longer are relegated to the shadowy corners of what's cool. These entrepreneurs are striking with the force of Wolverine's adamantium claws to push both the products and the passion for the medium on which that they were weaned.

An industry flying high

In industry parlance, the "origin story" of Carol & John's Comic Shop is an interesting one. Carol Cazzarin and John Dudas are a mother-son team with comic book ties that go back generations. Dudas was introduced to the paneled pages of heroes and villains when his Polish-speaking great-grandfather used comic books to learn the English language.

The adventures of Spider-Man, Batman and their costumed compatriots captured Dudas' imagination, and by age 11 he was working weekends in one of the local shops. Carol & John's opened on the west side of Cleveland in Kamms Plaza in 1990.

The corner store is small but cozy. Not-for-sale abstract oil paintings of Captain America decorate the walls, and a few racks of comics-related merchandise can be found here and there. But C & J's stock-in-trade is comics, with new monthly issues lining tables near the door and shelves upon shelves of "trades" (generally a collection of five or six issues released in chronological order) dominating the walls.

"We are a hardcore comics shop," says Dudas.

This is a point of pride for the native Clevelander, who is dressed comfortably in a Browns-colored Superman T-shirt with a "C" logo replacing the iconic "S" worn by the Man of Steel. His shop is a communal haven for his customers, who come not just to snag the latest issues, but also to discuss with kindred spirits how the latest Iron Man film meshes with the source material.

"It's like Cheers for comic book fans," says Dudas, 40, who also works as a Cleveland firefighter.

While not always easy to find, comic book shops have not faded away, he notes. The recent onslaught of comic book movies and popularity of nerd-celebrating sitcoms like Big Bang Theory have lent acceptance to a hobby that was largely frowned upon when Dudas was in high school.

Nor is the industry dying a slow and painful death, as has been the scuttlebutt for years, maintains the shop owner. There are always new publishers, new creators, new distribution channels, new social media, new everything pointing to a long life for his beloved medium.

"Comics are no longer pop culture, they're culture," Dudas says. "Batman is not the Rubik's Cube; he's not going away."

Carol & John's has gone all out to tie in Cleveland's connection to comic books. When the nearby Lorain Avenue bridge was used to film scenes for the new Captain America movie, Dudas' shop gave away superhero buttons to customers and film crew, while kids posed for pictures with Cap's famous stars-and-stripes shield.

Dudas also has been preparing for Superman Day, an event that will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the "big blue boy scout." The day will include an art show, giveaways, and, naturally, comic books. Along with the bottom-line benefit of attracting new customers, there is a Cleveland-centric legacy to protect, too.

"Superman is a Cleveland product," Dudas says. "He makes the city cool, and that's something to embrace."

Welcoming a new audience

The films and trickle-down cache of being the birthplace of Superman bring curious types into Willoughby's Comic Heaven. The store is a large, welcoming enclave of comics, back issues, trade paperbacks and pop culture items like Dungeons & Dragons and trading card games.

Owner Jim Williams opened his shop in 1994 after working for several years as the manager at Super City Comics in The Arcade downtown. Since age 10, he has been drawn to the themes of good versus evil and the responsibility of power that superhero tales represent.

"I enjoy sitting down and just getting lost in a story," says Williams, 56.

The same can be said for his clientele, most of them men ranging in age from 18 to 45. But a decade's worth of superhero and comic book movies have brought in new customers, too, including women and younger children. It helps that films like The Avengers carry a ubiquitous allure.

"Avengers drew people my age as well as children," Williams says. "It had characters like The Hulk that appealed to kids."

It's always heartening for Williams to see parents pass their lovably geeky passion down to their little ones. He does worry about losing new generations of potential readers to the digital age, but comics, more than most other pop culture mainstays, are a "touchy-feely" product, where admiring the art on the page is as important as reading the story.

"People want to flip through their books," Williams says. "They want a collection they can go back to."

The lifelong comics aficionado is no luddite when it comes to following industry trends. He scans five different industry sites for the latest news, and is diligent about updating his website and Facebook page. Still, Williams's best resource is and always will be his customers, and that's just fine with him.

"I used to know what these guys liked even before I knew their names," he says. "Now they're coming back with their own kids. I think it's great."

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.